Loneliness: The New Physical Illness?

Cropped SingleCare logo By | March 3, 2016

In addition to the extreme emotional pain loneliness can cause, there is mounting evidence linking loneliness and bodily symptoms, categorizing it as a physical illness.

It may not come as a surprise to many, but loneliness is actually bad for your physical health — and there’s proof, as published in the Washington Post. More and more studies are coming out, finding that isolation causes genetic changes on a molecular level. These changes may be as harmful as smoking, obesity, and even diabetes, yet the issues presented by loneliness are rarely addressed within the public health conversation.

The Studies

The feeling of loneliness is actually a result of human evolution, from a time when our survival depended on the safety provided by the group. It is meant to drive us to social interaction for cooperation and communication. The feeling of loneliness, then, is the body’s signal that something is wrong and needs to change — much in the same way hunger tells us we need to eat. It puts our bodies on alert, warning us of a threat, which may explain why lonely people struggle to form relationships in their heightened sensitivity to danger.

Psychologist Steve Cole and his colleagues conducted research looking into the effects social isolation has on the immune system. They found that isolation has dramatic impacts on a genetic level, causing more activity in genes that are involved in inflammation and less activity on those responsible for producing antibodies to fight infection.

In particular, people who are lonely see significant changes in a kind of white blood cell called monocytes. Monocytes play a crucial role in the body’s early defense against infection — but when they are underdeveloped, they actually reduce antibody effectiveness by causing inflammation, according to Nature. This may help explain why lonely people are at greater risk for heart attacks, metastatic cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other health issues.

Lonely is Not Alone

Teenager depressed sitting inside a dirty tunnel

A second analysis looked at data from 70 studies examining the lives of 3.4 million people with an average age of 66, according to the Washington Post. The studies lasted on average seven years, and approximately 25% of the participants died during that time. The review found that those who reported being lonely were 26% more likely to have died, while the mortality risk was 20% higher for those who were socially isolated.

It’s important to note that being alone and being lonely are not the same, a fact emphasized by the researchers. The feeling of loneliness can have the same negative impacts even if someone has a social network. Importantly, it’s not the same as depression, despite their frequent comorbidity.

Although loneliness certainly poses risks to our physical well-being, strong relationships can have the opposite effect. The wider variety of relationships a person has, the more improvement is apparent in physiological indicators of health like blood pressure and body mass index.

Improving Relationships

Despite the prevalence of loneliness (which has in recent years been exacerbated by social media) and obvious health risks associated with isolation, the issue is rarely addressed in the United States. Many researchers believe this needs to change by organizing social-service agencies and coordinating with legislators and health care providers — after all, public health issues wind up costing everyone in the end.

In the meantime, maintaining regular visits with your doctor is an important preventative step for loneliness-related illness, as is having a therapist to talk to if the feelings have become so acute. SingleCare provides its members with a comprehensive database of health practitioners across disciplines, from general care to psychiatry. Users pay only for the treatments they use, and SingleCare can be used in conjunction with or in place of insurance. No one should be lonely — so making sure to have the best medical care is the first step.

(Main image credit: NADOFOTOS/Thinkstock)